Tribal Report Card: How Did The Theme Shake Out?

When Onslaught first came out, we were tantalized with the prospect of powered-up theme decks that were actually competitive. There haven’t been a lot of those in the history of the game – Slivers, Merfolk, and Rebels have been pretty much it. Randy Buehler called Clerics, Soldiers, Birds, Wizards, Zombies, Goblins, Beasts, and Elves the”tribes that matter” in the Onslaught block – so I’m going to take a look at how each theme panned out over the course of the block.

With the release of Scourge, we now get to see just how good or bad Wizards'”tribal” focus for the Onslaught block turned out to be. When Onslaught first came out, we were tantalized with the prospect of powered-up theme decks that were actually competitive. There haven’t been a lot of those in the history of the game – Slivers, Merfolk, and Rebels have been pretty much it. (Some may count Goblins, but I wouldn’t necessarily count Tempest-era Sligh decks as”Goblin” themed; they merely made good use of cheap creatures that happened to be Goblins.)”Elfball” decks have popped up in Extended here and there, mostly to abuse Priest of Titania.

Unfortunately, Onslaught’s tribal power just wasn’t plentiful or good enough to really cause a ripple outside of Limited. This made sense though, since the tribal theme was supposed to carry throughout the entire block; you didn’t want to have tribal be too strong in the beginning or else it would be too dominant once the full block came out.

Randy Buehler called Clerics, Soldiers, Birds, Wizards, Zombies, Goblins, Beasts, and Elves the”tribes that matter” in the Onslaught block. I’m going to take a look at how each theme panned out over the course of the block.


Overall Impressions: With goblins disappearing in the Odyssey block, it was amazing how much love Wizards dished out for our favorite red weenies starting in Onslaught – and it didn’t stop there, with plenty of choice Goblin theme cards throughout Legions and Scourge. Most of the goblins were efficiently costed, and pretty much all that kept them in check from their Tempest-era glory is the lack of efficient burn and the presence of tons of large green fatties. Until Kai Budde published a brutally fast and damaging R/G deck, Goblin Sligh was the measuring stick of aggression in Type 2, and it managed to be a Deck to Beat amidst the Uber-fat Onslaught Block Pro Tour in Venice. I think it’s pretty clear that goblins benefited the most from the tribal themes of Onslaught block.

Scourge Goodies: Obviously, Goblin Warchief fills the relatively neglected 3cc slot quite nicely, and giving all goblins haste makes an aggressive archetype even more so. The discount to goblins really isn’t all that useful to the more traditional goblin builds, but now that the highly underrated Siege-Gang Commander (Red’s Deranged Hermit) is available, we may want to change the top-end of the goblin mana curve somewhat.

Other thoughts: While we’ve had several quality goblin decks come out so far, R&D gave goblins some other options that I’m surprised haven’t been fully explored. Cabal Slaver turns all your cheap goblins into reverse cantrips (and is especially nice with Goblin Warchief’s communal haste), and Earthblighter gives nice land destruction potential – something that could be quite powerful in mana-hungry Onslaught block. Brightstone Ritual still holds out the promise of explosive turns.

Notable tribal cards include: Cabal Slaver, Brightstone Ritual, Goblin Piledriver, Goblin Pyromancer, Goblin Sledder, Goblin Taskmaster, Skirk Fire Marshal, Skirk Prospector, Sparksmith, Goblin Burrows, Earthblighter, Goblin Turncoat, Clickslither, Gempalm Incinerator, Skirk Drill Sergeant, Goblin Warchief, Siege-Gang Commander, Skirk Volcanist

ELVES: Grade A-

Overall Impressions: You know, the Elf tribe sorta snuck up on me. Another creature type on hiatus during Odyssey, I was eager for their return in Onslaught but once I saw the set I was discouraged. None of the elf cards really spoke to me. Legions was a little more interesting, but still the tribe as a whole seemed lacking. But then Rob Dougherty tossed around an Elf deck that abused Elvish Guidance and Slate of Ancestry, and shortly thereafter created a nasty green/black Elf deck that could go infinite with a little help from Nantuko Husks and Verdant Succession. Tammy Ehrhart shocked the world with her Quarterfinalist finish in the Magic Online Worlds Qualifier with an Elf beatdown deck, one that Peter Szigeti modified slightly and used to win his Regionals tournament in Southern California. I have to laugh when I see Taunting Elf in their decklists, which has the ultimate provoke! With all the Elf pump effects, I guess he really is effective, and the Symbiote makes him look even better. When looking at these decks, they still feel lacking in some oomph to me, but the success of the archetype in the hands of others is hard to refute.

Scourge Goodies: Wirewood Symbiote really jumps out as a real finesse card. Obviously modeled on the venerable Quirion Ranger, it can turn any Elf into a Blinking Spirit while doubling the power of tappers like Wellwisher, Timberwatch Elf, and Wirewood Channeler. And I just have to mention Taunting Elf again…

Ambush Commander is an enticing card for those bold enough to use him; at the risk of laying your lands at risk to creature removal (and making them susceptible to summoning sickness), the Commander really juices up the same tappers as the Symbiote, while also making Elvish Guidance downright abusive, especially in conjunction with Wirewood Lodge! The trick is to figure out what to do with all that mana (cough *Kamahl, Fist of Krosa* cough), but Elves are a wily bunch and I’m sure they can figure it all out.

Other Thoughts: Losing Llanowar Elves in 8th edition is going to be a tough blow for green overall, not to mention Elf-themed decks. I’m just holding out hope that R&D had plans for a 1cc mana Elf for Mirrodin, and did not want green to have up to twelve 1cc mana critters (which is why they had us choose between Llanowar Elves and Birds of Paradise for what would remain in the Core Set). Hey, a guy can hope!

Notable tribal cards include: Birchlore Rangers, Elvish Guidance, Wellwisher, Wirewood Herald, Wirewood Lodge, Wirewood Pride, Gempalm Strider, Timberwatch Elf, Wirewood Channeler, Wirewood Hivemaster, Ambush Commander, Wirewood Symbiote


Overall Impressions: Odyssey Block had already given us a decent working set of Zombies before Onslaught hit and gave us a reason to look again at Balthor the Defiled, Crypt Creeper, Gravedigger, Grotesque Hybrid, Organ Grinder, Zombie Infestation, and Zombie Trailblazer. While Onslaught brought us some solid little zombies, none of them were particularly stellar. Legions gave us a reason to look again, and that set has pushed the tribe awfully close to the competitive edge; Graveborn Muse in particular got people’s imaginations working overtime.

Scourge Goodies: Call to the Grave stands out as a potential powerhouse creature control card that fits snugly at home in a zombie tribal deck, and Undead Warchief makes some of the more expensive zombies (such as Corpse Harvester) more enticing, while making your cheaper zombies pack a much bigger punch.

Other Thoughts: For those of you who enjoy casual Magic, I’d just like to introduce you to Mr. Vengeful Dead and Ms. Tombstone Stairwell.

Notable tribal cards include: Boneknitter, Cruel Revival, Shepherd of Rot, Soulless One, Unholy Grotto, Corpse Harvester, Embalmed Brawler, Gempalm Polluter, Ghastly Remains, Graveborn Muse, Noxious Ghoul, Call to the Grave, Putrid Raptor, Twisted Abomination, Undead Warchief, Vengeful Dead.


Overall Impressions: I get the distinct impression that R&D held back some on the Cleric tribe simply because there were so many good clerics already floating around Odyssey Bock and they didn’t necessarily want Clerics to become dominant. Or something. Why not? Would Master Apothecary Summer have been all that horrible for the game? It’s weird; a year ago R&D declared that they were on a mission to try and revitalize white, and they made an interesting start in Judgment, but now that Onslaught block is out it feels as if they lost their focus, and unfortunately the white tribes were somewhat neglected.

Scourge Goodies: Edgewalker is certainly interesting, discounting colored mana and making B/W cleric decks easier to operate. Of course, you gotta have black and white mana to cast it in the first place… Daru Spiritualist boosts Apothecary craziness.

Other Thoughts: When Odyssey Block rotates, the white-based cleric decks will pretty much vanish and leave behind their evil brethren, whose power resides in Onslaught block. I’m still waiting for a good Dark Supplicant deck to kick in.

Notable tribal cards include: Doubtless One, Cabal Archon, Rotlung Reanimator, Starlit Sanctum, Akroma’s Devoted, Celestial Gatekeeper, Dark Supplicant, Vile Deacon, Daru Spiritualist, Edgewalker


Overall Impressions: Some of you may be saying”Wait a minute – Grade C?! Weren’t Beast decks all the rage through the Regionals season?” Yeah, they were, and yeah. there are some really good Beasts out there. The grade comes from the fact that the tribal theme wasn’t really pushed all that much. Sure, we have a collection of decent Beasts scattered throughout the colors, but there’s not much outside of Contested Cliffs, Ravenous Baloths, and Canopy Crawler (in block) that entices us to pay attention to the Beast race.

Scourge Goodies: Krosan Warchief is pretty much it, and its mana discount is particularly nice in paying the generally expensive mana cost of many beasts. The regeneration is pricey – but handy, too. If only he was attached to something more impressive than a humble Gray Ogre body.

Other Thoughts: Richard Garfield’s success in the Wizards Invitational, along with Jordan Berkowitz’s top 8 in Venice with heavy Beast themes, certainly makes it a deck worth exploring further for the Onslaught Block qualifiers.

Notable tribal cards include: Ravenous Baloth, Contested Cliffs, Wirewood Savage, Canopy Crawler, Feral Throwback, Krosan Warchief


Overall Impressions: I really thought White’s redemption was going to be found in the Soldier tribe, but unfortunately that never really materialized. There’s some solid, workmanlike stuff here, but nothing that really shines. I was really hoping there would be a Soldier or two with a search mechanic, kind of like Rebels, that could really kick it up a notch.

Scourge Goodies: Daru Warchief shows some promise as a combo Glorious Anthem/Castle with legs. Decree of Justice certainly gives us something to do with excess mana lying around, and probably better than Mobilization.

Other Thoughts: The soldier theme really flounders because there are not enough white power cards to supplement their efficient weenies. Maybe Mirrodin will help?

Notable tribal cards include: Catapult Squad, Mobilization, Piety Charm, Unified Strike, Daru Encampment, Daru Stinger, Gempalm Avenger, Daru Warchief, Decree of Justice


Overall Impressions: A big disappointment here; I really think R&D blew a big chance at getting blue mages invested in their main phase again. If the crop of Wizards had actually been halfway decent enough to warrant tapping out during your main phase, it would have been really interesting. It’s a shame Voidmage Prodigy got stranded in such a horrid tribe; I almost feel bad for Kai Budde. Almost.

Scourge Goodies: Are you kidding me?

Other Thoughts: The one potential saving grace for Wizards lies in morph triggers and whether any sort of deck that abuses them can be put together. If so, Wizards will surely be a big part of that equation, and it’s possible that the two themes – both rather weak alone – could combine and be competitive.

Notable tribal cards include: Information Dealer, Psychic Trance, Voidmage Prodigy, Lavamancer’s Skill, Riptide Laboratory, Gempalm Sorcerer, Riptide Director

BIRDS: Grade F

Overall Impressions: I’ve always felt bad for Birds, whether it’s the pathetic Soraya the Falconer, the insulting Kangee, Aerie Keeper, or the frustrating potential of Keeper of the Nine Gales. It’s like someone in R&D attempts to help the Bird tribe and then the rest of the gang sabotages the idea.

Scourge Goodies: Raven Guild Initiate would be interesting if only it itself were a Bird or if there were Birds with decent CIP effects (and I certainly don’t count deck stacking as one of them).

Other Thoughts: I really think it’s a shame that the powering down of blue had to also include shafting them on creatures. If blue actually had interesting creatures worth playing, blue mages would be more prone to invest in the main phase, which would encourage more interactive games.

Notable tribal cards include: Celestial Gatekeeper, Keeper of the Nine Gales, Raven Guild Initiate

Overall, I think the Tribal theme was a modest success. While I think it really shone best in Limited, giving another dimension to putting together synergistic decks, the constructed player I am at heart would have liked to have seen it pushed a little harder for the Constructed world. What do you think?